A year ago I commented upon the decision of HHJ Wilcox in Phethean-Hubble v Coles. The Court of Appeal have now handed down their Judgment on Sam Coles's appeal against the finding that he was two thirds to blame for the collision which resulted in serious injury to Tobias Phethean-Hubble.
I set out the facts in my earlier commentary on HHJ Wilcox's Judgment. In brief summary the facts and findings of the trial judge were as follows:
1. Tobias (age 16) had been riding his bicycle at night without lights, and without helmet, along the pavement of a long straight road with street lights, with one carriageway in each direction and with a speed limit of 30mph.
2. Sam (age 17) was driving his mother's car in the same direction at a speed of 35mph.
3. Tobias left the pavement at an angle in order to cross to the pavement on the other side of the road. He rode into the path of the car and a collision occurred about 1.5 metres from the kerb.
4. At the speed at which Sam was travelling there was no chance of avoiding the collision.
5. Sam had seen Tobias on the pavement and should have anticipated that he might move into the road and should have moderated his speed to 3 or 4 mph below the speed limit.
6. That reduced speed would have resulted in a greater likelihood of avoiding the collision or reducing the severity of Tobias's injuries.
7. The non-use of bicycle lights or a cycle helmet made no difference to the collision or its consequences.
In the Court of Appeal, both sides appealed the Judge's findings as to Sam's speed (though the Claimant's argument that the finding should have been of faster speed was more muted than the Defendant's that the finding should have been slower). Sam had originally told the police that his speed was 'about 35mph' [My comment: an odd thing to say to a police officer about your speed in a 30 mph area if, as subsequently claimed he was in fact travelling at 30 mph, unless there is some cultural norm among motorists that a few miles an hour over a speed limit is really quite acceptable]. Perhaps therefore it is not surprising that (whatever the problems with trying to cross check this with the physical evidence) this finding was upheld.
Next, the Defendant attacked the Judge's finding that a safe speed in the circumstances was 26/27 mph. Again, though with 'considerable anxiety' the Court of Appeal upheld this finding. [My comment: it would have been an easier finding had the Judge been more, rather than less, ambitious. In the context of his finding that Sam should have anticipated that Tobias might ride into the road, slowing to 20mph might have made some meaningful difference. The Court's anxiety appears to have related to this fine tuning of a figure so close to the speed limit. But this perhaps endows the speed limit with too much importance. The determination of a safe speed depends upon the circumstances; it will very often be slower than the limit (and even according to some of the older cases higher than the speed limit). At all event the Judge's finding was that Sam should have been going some 20% slower than he was].
The next point was the one of greatest danger for Tobias; that was, would the slower speed have made any difference. The Judge had, at best, expressed himself unsatisfactorily when talking about 'likelihoods' when our law of causation requires these matters to be determined on the balance of probabilities. The finding more happily expressed would be that it is more likely than not that had Sam been travelling at 26/27 mph, the collision would not have happened. The Court of Appeal accepted that that is what the Judge meant and upheld his decision that Sam's excessive speed had caused Tobias's injuries. Perhaps the most important observation to be derived from this case is that the burden of proving that Tobias's injuries would have been of similar severity even had Sam been travelling at a safe speed rested on the Defendant. Once the Claimant had established that the Defendant was in breach of his duty of care and that the Claimant had sustained an injury of the kind likely to be caused by that breach then it is incumbent upon the Defendant to disprove causation. That is potentially a significant development of the law which may be of real assistance to cyclists (and other injured Claimants).
Finally the Defendant appealed the Judge's finding that the level of contributory negligence should be one-third. The Judge had said that the degree of contributory negligence would have been one half but that it was just and equitable to reduce it because of Tobias's age. The Court of Appeal agreed with the Defendant that there was no reason to treat Tobias as if he were anything other than an adult in this respect and allowed the appeal to the extent of increasing the contributory negligence from one third to one half.